When Will There Be Good News is a novel by Kate Atkinson, published in 2008 and the third in her highly enjoyable series featuring Jackson Brodie.
By chance, that title chimes with a growing public alienation with news, judging by the unscientific observations of friends and the steadier calculus provided last month by Oxford University’s Reuters Institute.
These thoughts about news also percolate through the mind of someone who spent a lifetime in an around journalism until last December.
Since retiring from my last regular gig with PA Media, I have confined my journalism to occasional feature writing for the Yorkshire Post, a fine diversion for a good newspaper, and twittering about life in this blog.
As for that last job, working for a news agency certainly plunges you into the undammable flow of what we call news, while reinforcing the idea that there is some sort of media agenda.
Not the agenda exemplified by the malignant bias of newspapers such as the Mail, Telegraph and Express, but the way news organisations report on the same things at the same time, all in a headless rush to whatever next.
And never more so that with all that churning tedium of ‘news’ about royalty. Imagine what could be covered if all the lazy obsequiousness was stripped out of the headlines. It’ll never happen, but it should.
By chance, I was working on the PA newswire on the day the late Queen died. That experience left me awed by the skill and dedication involved in producing so much news at such speed; yet it was hard not to wonder who would read all those words.
After a working life mostly spent in features, that newswire job was exacting and interesting, although it coincided with my own creeping doubts about news.
Once upon an ink-smudged finger, I was an all-round news addict, reading, watching and listening to almost anything and everything. Nowadays I take more of a semi-detached squint at what’s going on, wanting to know while admitting you can’t keep up with everything.
Partly this drift was down to that shameless trio of Brexit, Trump and Johnson. All the news everyday was shaped by that gruesome threesome for what seemed like ever, until even my news-alert mind began to stutter, and my mouth began to cry: “Oh do shut the flip up!” (polite version).
Then there are the endless stupid culture war stories, promoted by the right in the US and echoed by their shabby cousins over here.
You know the stuff, stories that aren’t about anything other than being a way to stir the grievance pot.
You know the guff, everything shit about life being blamed on unspecified liberal forces, such as the woke/Remainer elite, but never on those who are in power.
You know the cast-iron cobblers, invented non-stories about children at a school in Sussex identifying as cats, when no such thing ever happened, and yet just about everyone reports on this thing that never happened. Social media rattles its empty tin, and then politicians join in the dumb chorus, happy for the distraction from all those rotten things that are actually happening.
Well, you know the routine.
Now to that anecdotal evidence. Friends often say, unprompted, that they rarely watch the news. Too depressing, too distressing or just too much to absorb without damaging their mental health – that seems to be the consensus.
And it’s a knotty one. Does knowing about all the bad things than happen to good people make you better informed about the world; or is it just what you might term ‘misery porn’, watching suffering from the comfort of home?
My friends are not alone.
According to the latest study by the Reuters Institute, the number of people taking a strong interest in the news globally has dropped by around a quarter in the past six years.
It found that 48% of people around the world “are very or extremely interested in the news – down from 63% in 2017”, according to the BBC website.
In the UK, the proportion of news followers is lower than the global average at 43%. Worldwide, 36% of people say they “sometimes or often actively avoid the news”.
Perhaps there is just too much news to absorb without coming to harm. Or maybe news is just another product and people aren’t buying like they used to.
A depressing thought for journalists, many of whom work flat out to deliver news for papers, TV, the internet and so forth. Most journalists are good people just doing a job. Sadly, some of them work for newspapers owned by billionaires who set their agenda.
Sadder still, many work for the Daily Mail, a news empire seemingly intent on backing every stupid thing Boris Johnson does, from trumpeting his appalling stint as prime minister, to paying him a fortune to write a poor column after his ejection from Number 10.
According to that Reuters report, most people now access news on TikTok, a mystery to me. I still buy two print newspapers a week, and also dip in and out on social media and on my phone.
Social media has made everything worse, heightening our differences, and given platforms to haters everywhere. Yet it has also allowed those who grumble about the mainstream media to have a public grumble, as they so often do.
When Will There Be Good News? Oh, probably never – or perhaps ‘good news’ isn’t really news at all, even though it should be.
Some habits are hard to break. I won’t turn my back on the headlines entirely, but I have stepped back a foot or two, tuning in more often to BBC Radio 3 for some classical destressing.